Burger, we wrote: Sacramento’s best burgers

Three SN&R writers ate 50 local burgers this summer. Here are a dozen favorites.

Pangaea Bier Cafe in Curtis Park, home to the region’s best burger—thank you, chef Brett Stockdale.

Pangaea Bier Cafe in Curtis Park, home to the region’s best burger—thank you, chef Brett Stockdale.

photos by ryan donahue

It wasn’t even 11 a.m. on the first day of 2015, but the zigzag of cars at the In-N-Out Burger near Arden Way was like the queue for new Jordans or Yeezy Boosts at Foot Locker. What the hell was going on? I kid you not, at least four-dozen cars. Instead of joining them, I perhaps should’ve looked within and asked “What the hell am I doing at In-N-Out before noon on New Year's Day?” True story. It’s the year of the burger.

Even truer: Burgers are out of control in Sacramento.

In seven days, the city will host its fourth annual Sacramento Burger Battle. The event sold out—about 1,000 tickets—months ago. Founder Rodney Blackwell told SN&R that some 500 people remain on the waiting list. More than 15,000 burger bites will be served on September 17 in Cesar Chavez Plaza. This is really happening. (Read an interview with the self-proclaimed “Burger Junkie” on page 18.)

Anyway, if you’re so over double-digit-dollar meat-and-bun monstrosities, or if your tendency is for forks over knives, then avert ye eyes: I just ate a $26 burger for lunch last week. Peak Burger is far from nigh. This is burger genesis. Run.

Or join those left behind, including three of us at SN&R—myself and food writers Janelle Bitker and Ann Martin Rolke, who ate 50 burgers this summer. Five-zero. Our goal was to narrow that “field” down to a handful of favorites, which we did (pat on back, see page 17). But eating all those damn burgers got us fussy, too—as food critics are wont. Burgers upon burgers got issues upon issues.

I called chef Aimal Formoli, of the eponymous bistro, to get some help about Sacramento’s chef-burger situation. And to learn more about what is up with all these Mt. Denali monuments to artery clogging and calorie overkill.

“It’s too much” is how he described the ever-competitive chef-burger one-upsmanship. Or brinkmanship, depending on your cholesterol level. “My pet peeves about burgers are giant burgers with a bunch of shit stacked on them,” he explained. Indeed, those burgers—creations a horse couldn’t even fit in its mouth—decorate local plates in spades. Formoli even has one of the city’s most loved chef burgers on his menu. (It’s taut and simple, not dripping with chef-rock-star ego, but did it crack the top 10?)

But, yeah, after 50 local burgers, we here at SN&R find ourselves in the chef’s shoes: We just want meat, bun, cheese and sauce. Oh, and a couple of neat strips of bacon. “Everything else is crap,” as Formoli put it.

All right, so we’re not total purists. We don’t mind a little secret something—a kitchen-classified seasoning to the meat, or some of that ubiquitous special sauce. And lord knows we can be a sucker for amazing fries (talking about you, Adamo’s Kitchen, and your best-in-the-city frites).

But at the end of the burger rainbow, we want to find this: a gently toasted bun that’s still warm to the touch and holds together; a fatty, juicy, medium-rare patty—cooked properly. (You’d be stunned how seldom this happens!) Snooty cheese, showy jams, souped-up mayonnaise, fried microwhatevers, truffled butters and foie fawkin’ gras—if they’re there, they should do one and only one thing: make the burger, the meat, better.

And so go the commandments that lead to our favorite dozen local burgers. Enjoy! (N.M.)

Our favorite burger in Sacramento

Simply listed as The Pangaea Burger ($13), this is consistently the most satisfying burger in town. It has all the elements of a perfect burger down pat: A custom blend of brisket and chuck gives it enough fat to hold together and carry the rich flavor of the beef. The locally made brioche bun isn't too crunchy or squashy, but doesn't dissolve in a sog of meat juice, either. Toppings are classic and restrained, with sharp cheddar, bacon, ripe tomato, onions, housemade pickles and sauce, and a leaf of crunchy lettuce. It's good to the last bite and doesn't leave you in a coma of overindulgence. Sure, eat the fries, too. Pangaea Bier Cafe's burger even passed the ultimate test: It held up well as takeout. The new chef, Brett Stockdale, inherited the burger from Robb Venditti—and it's not going to change. “Every ingredient we put on the burger is a good-quality ingredient,” Stockdale explained. “It's a classic burger and it really satisfies.” 2743 Franklin Boulevard, www.pangaeabiercafe.com. (AMR)

The No. 2 burger

The burger at Pangaea.

Photo by Ryan Donahue

Squeaking in at a very close second, the Magpie Cafe burger ($15) is only available at lunch, and at the bar on weekdays from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Niman ground beef is top quality, paired with a cascade of provolone, Point Reyes blue cheese, thick-cut bacon, a pristine slice of heirloom tomato, lettuce and “special sauce.” It comes speared with a skewer holding zesty house pickles. Great burgers have something that’s hard to pinpoint that makes them exceptional. Maybe it’s a balance of acid vs. fat. While the Magpie burger is a little heavy on blue cheese, you don’t feel like a bloated hippo after eating it. The tomato, pickle and sauce neutralize the richness. It’s not too big or overladen with crazy ingredients, and you can assuage your guilt by choosing a salad side instead of fries. “We wanted to use top ingredients,” lunch and brunch head chef at Magpie Matt Kramer explained. “We are just seasoning with salt and pepper, so we’re letting the meat speak for itself.” The only downside is that, while it’s almost perfect in presentation, the bun tends to fall apart if you do any talking during lunch. 1601 16th Street, www.magpiecafe.com. (AMR)

The bronze medal

The neighborhood soul-food joint South also does a burger. That’s not a secret, as the $13 Chef’s Burger has received more than a chicken wing of hype. But unlike most chefs-gone-wild restaurant burgers, this one delivers simple pleasures amid culinary ambition. It’s at once unabashedly sloppy—bacon confit, spicy mayo, a spicy slaw and jam with shallots and leeks—but this mess doesn’t detract from the main show: the meat, which is smoky and juicy at first bite. We liked that the burger, despite the dizzying mix of toppings—which also included havarti cheese and housemade pickles—wasn’t a towering, impossible-to-eat chef creation. Its brioche bun can’t hold the energy forever, though, so you’ve been warned. 2005 11th Street, www.weheartfriedchicken.com. (N.M.)

Other favorites
Plan for a nap

It was about 2 p.m. and I had just finished downing Rick’s Deluxe Burger ($14), and I promptly fell asleep. For hours. This food coma was intense, but the culprit was intensely good. The Five Dot Ranch chuck patty was cooked a perfect medium-rare and oozed with juice; the white cheddar, pickles, grilled onions and beautiful heirloom tomato were all quality. The extra $1 for bacon was worth it. In other words, The Waterboy burger is the classic farm-to-fork chef’s burger done right. Just plan ahead and book a post-lunch “meeting.” 2000 Capitol Avenue, http://waterboyrestaurant.com. (J.B.)

Dat bread tho

Truth is, Juno’s Kitchen and Deli’s burger ($11.25) is more of a sandwich than the other bun-patty situations on this list. That’s because there’s no bun at all. There’s bread—the same amazing, 27-hour leavened sourdough that Juno’s uses for its other sammies. It’s chewy, crusty and soft all at once, which provides an extra-fun textural contrast to the two toothsome, charred patties that lie within. Rectangles of cheddar are melted on top; a little tomato, lettuce and pickle action mingles with a mild aioli—called “fancy sauce”—underneath. 3675 J Street, www.junoskitchen.com. (J.B.)

Lunchish and delish

A cook at South prepares the restaurant’s signature burger, a creation at once innovative and simple.

True to its location, Bacon & Butter’s burger is full of bacon. It’s ground with Storm Hill beef for the juicy patty and also layered on top. Since they only do breakfast and lunch, the B&B Burger ($14) is on the “lunchish” section of the menu. It comes with lots of arugula, a smoked aioli, Petaluma jack cheese and crunchy shallot rings. You’d think that was enough, but it’s best with the sunny-side egg option. Some eaters might argue there’s too much arugula. Others might want to try the Classic Burger ($13), with the holy trinity of LTO, bacon, cheddar, pickle and black garlic aioli. Get the smashed fries on the side. 5913 Broadway, http://baconandbuttersac.com. (AMR)

No aioli, thanks

All these chefs’ burgers, what with their aioli spreads masquerading as goddamned mayo and brioche buns that fall apart at first wetness. Screw that. Sometimes you just want an old-fashioned West Coast-style slider—slammed patty, crunchy iceberg, busted tomato and “Is that even cheese?” melted American. Willie’s Burgers delivers 100 on this every time. There can be blowback from a 1 a.m. burger run—you know what I’m talking about—but in this city of truffle burgers for an Andrew Jackson, a $3.90 hammer is often home. (I also like how Willie’s has the jankiest website.) 2415 16th Street, http://williesburgers.com. (N.M.)

Better than In-N-Out?

Nothing makes me feel as patriotic as a trip to Whitey’s Jolly Kone. The old-school vibes. The menu that includes both burgers and Mexican food. Don’t even get me started on the milkshakes. And the Whitey’s Special ($3.50)? Two thin, flavorful patties topped with unapologetically American cheese, crispy bacon and your usual fixins. It’s so simple and so right—like In-N-Out Burger, but better. 1300 Jefferson Boulevard in West Sacramento, (916) 371-3605. (J.B.)

No tomato necessary

The South burger.

Photo by Ryan Donahue

Eating in the elegant, chandelier-laden Firehouse Restaurant dining room for just $15 feels like a huge bargain. Granted, you’re getting a burger at lunchtime. Still, the Steakhouse Burger explodes with refined flavor. The beef is as good as it gets, served under melty havarti, with subtle notes of horseradish, sautéed portobello mushrooms and jammy, caramelized onions—no tomato or lettuce necessary. It almost feels like ordering a fancy Firehouse steak—what with the shrooms and horseradish combo—but it’s only $15! 1112 Second Street, www.firehouseoldsac.com. (J.B.)

Nice (pretzel) buns

We tried two burgers at de Vere’s Irish Pub: the Battle Burger ($13.99) and Bacon Cheeseburger ($12.99). Both are noteworthy for the unusual pretzel buns that hold up well and the more reasonably sized patties. These aren’t gargantuan, and that’s great for lighter eaters. The housemade potato chips, sprinkled with fresh parsley, are worth a visit alone. 1521 L Street, www.deverespub.com. (AMR)

Salty pork bits

Chef Mark Helms at Juno’s Kitchen & Deli whips up his burger with a 27-hour leavened sourdough bun.

For less than $10, Skip’s Kitchen delivers a killer burger that’s at once unfussy and gourmet. The bacon-cheddar ($9.79) is well thought out and well executed: the portions for each ingredient are ideal; the patty arrives juicy and pink on the inside; and the eggy brioche bun, remarkably, never gets soggy—even after the leftovers take a ride in the car. The kicker? The bacon gets chopped up and mixed into the melted cheddar, which makes a big-deal difference in tasting salty porky bits in every single bite. 4717 El Camino Avenue, www.skipskitchen.com. (J.B.)

Don’t use condiments

Meat, cheese, aioli, bun. That’s it. Reminiscent of April Bloomfield’s super-famous burger at the Spotted Pig in New York, the LowBrau burger ($13) focuses on glorious, glorious meat. But everything else is on-point, too. The bun? Pretzel, with a brioche-like quality. The cheese? Your choice of white cheddar or blue—both options bring a nice sharpness without overpowering the beef. The size? Everything perfectly portioned and completely reasonable. And sure, there’s some lettuce, onion and excellent, mustardy pickles on the side if you want them. Pro tip: You don’t. 1050 20th Street, www.lowbrausacramento.com. (J.B.)

The burger at Juno’s

Photo by Ryan Donahue